Friday, May 9, 2008

Winetasting Journeys: Vouvray: Domaine des Aubuisieres, Domaine Huet

We awoke early at our hotel, the Hostellerie Perce-Neige in Vernou-sur-Brenne, and after breakfast got a lift into Tours, where we picked up a rental car for the week. Having taken the bus from Tours over to Vouvray the day before, I still had a fresh image of the route in my mind, and the drive back to Vouvray went (thankfully) without a wrong turn. Map and directions in hand, we located Le Haut-Lieu and the Huet family residence, where we veered right and after another kilometer or so passed the Huet winery buildings on the left. During the drive we spotted signs for Fouquet and Foreau, and the latter turned out to be just before Huet on a winding narrow road with wineries buried into the limestone cliffs on the left side, and dwellings above ground on the right.

After getting the lay of the land, we returned to the crossroads at Vouvray to make phone calls confirming appointments and rescheduling one double-booking. As we began the drive back towards Huet to look into the tasting room, we pulled over at a house with a sign in front labelled "Bernard Fouquet, viticulteur" and because the front door was wide open, we poked our heads inside. It was an office, and the man at the desk came out to talk to us. He was cordial and formal. Yes, he was Bernard Fouquet of Domaine des Aubuisieres, and yes we could taste. How about 2 PM? Excellent, the winery is just up the road, through the circle (past the turn to Le Haut Lieu) and up on the next road to the right.

Since it was almost noon, we quickly drove to Huet, caught them just before lunch, and made a loose appointment for later in the afternoon. We fueled up for the rest of the day with a picnic lunch along the Brenne river. The weather was pleasant; balmy and sunny, and the spot Melissa picked was restful. All well and good, because I was nervous with anticipation for the upcoming Fouquet encounter and the first tasting of our trip.

We were on time for our appointment, and M. Fouquet ("Foo-Kay"), who's fortyish, bearded and pleasantly reserved, got us started immediately, leading us deep into his cave while carrying 5 or 6 chalk-marked bottles in his hands. We walked past rows of densely stacked bottles to a table in an underground gravel-floored, hewn limestone tasting room with only a six-foot ceiling. I had to duck. The tasting was conducted in French, and over the course of it ten wines were tasted, five of which were moelleux ("moi-luh"), and the last of which, the Marigny 1996, was so rich and syrupy it was more like Yquem than a Loire white.

M. Fouquet is into terroir, and described his wines made on calcareous clay soil (Marigny, Bouchet, Plan de Jean) as "floral and fruity" and those made on perruches (flinty clay) soil (Girardieres, Chaire Salees) as "minerally and austere." Vineyard holdings are pretty big for Vouvray; Girardieres is seven hectares, Marigny is four, Bouchet is four and Plan du Jean is two. He said he made nine different wines in 1995 and will probably release seven in 1996.

He describes his Vouvrays as often going through a dumb period of three to ten years, emerging with flavors of "pain grillée" as a sign of maturity.

During the tasting I got out the topo maps of Vouvray and he pointed out his vineyard sites, showing us in detail where to look for the vines. It was an excellent first visit, and he spoke in great detail about the wines, which are worth seeking out. After leaving with a bottle of the '96 Girardieres moelleux 1er Trie we headed up to take a look at the Girardieres vineyard, up on the plateau east of Huet.

We didn't have a formal appointment at Huet (they pronounce the "t") so, not expecting much we pulled into the winery and went inside. The place was empty, and a young enology student named Florence asked us if we'd like to see the caves before having a tasting. Us? Are you kidding!?

Huet's caves deep in the limestone "tuffeau" are extremely extensive, and they have to be; the company keeps an average of six hundred thousand bottles in these naturally cool, underground caverns which stay at a passive temp of about twelve degrees centigrade (54F) year round. Everything happens in the caves except the bottling/labelling, which takes place in a building next to the parking lot. We saw a run of an '89 1er trie moelleux being labelled and boxed during our visit (sure would have liked a case of THAT to take home). Fermentation, which takes place in thirty to forty-year-old barrels, generally lasts for one to two months in the caves. No malolactic here, or for that matter anywhere in the Loire that we could tell.

We saw tunnel after tunnel of sparkling and still wines maturing in bottle, and large sections of older moelleux wines as well; 1953, 1959, 1961, 1971, and at one point spotted an even deeper narrow cave leading down from the floor where we stood. Could we see that passageway? No. We were informed that M. Huet's private collection was down there. Shameless, I squinted to spot vintage labels on the bins and could only make out a stash of 1949. Robert Denis, another elder statesman of Touraine and a peer of Gaston, told us at a later visit about the wines he had tasted with M. Huet over the years; the 1873, the 1921, the 1947. "The 47 is still too young," said Denis, chuckling puckishly.

After spending some time underground, I started to wonder just what was over our heads. Could it be vineyards? You bet. It's the "Le Mont" vineyard and it's directly above, about 10-15 meters away. We were led up some stairs to the surface and into a large open-air cave filled with large, ancient wooden wine-pressing equipment and fig trees just outside the gate.

About the winemaking: After a gradual ten year conversion, winemaking at Huet is now entirely biodynamic, like N. Joly at Coulée de Serrant in Savennières, and we picked up a pamphlet written by Noel Pinguet (Gaston Huet's son-in-law and current winemaker) explaining his philosophy. I got the opinion after visiting both places that Pinguet is first and foremost a farmer who found out that biodynamics works for him, where with Joly it seems to approach an almost religious significance far beyond the farming aspect. There was a book for sale at Joly that he had written - in retrospect it would have made an interesting read.

After the cave tour we were led back to the clean, modern, above-ground tasting room, where we had a nice set of wines poured for us to taste. They feel at Huet that '89-'90 and '95-'96 are the best most recent vintages and the two 1996 wines we tasted confirmed for me the high level of quality we can expect in '96. Afterwards I brought out the topo maps, and an older woman came out of the office to point out the "Clos du Bourg" site, and to warn us about the dog there (we never saw it, thankfully). We were told that the Clos du Bourg is the oldest known vineyard in Vouvray, dating back to a purported 350 AD.

After leaving Huet, we drove up for a look at some of the vineyards we'd tasted wines from. The Haut-Lieu vineyard is right by the Huet house, and the enclosed, ancient vineyard of Clos du Bourg is nearby, just west of the cemetery. One of my fun experiments on this trip was a homemade 3D camera setup made from a couple of disposable cameras, so I took a few 3D shots here (the pix came out pretty well, but I'm no pro!). We walked to the cliff edge and discovered that people have troglodyte cave homes beneath the Clos du Bourg vineyard as well. Who would have thought?!?

Before heading back to the hotel we located the "Le Marigny" vineyard plot of Fouquet near Vouvray centre and went to visit the vines. It was surrounded by a tall chicken-wire fence and topped with barbed wire! I guess those grapes are valuable enough to need protection, but what caused the need for this extreme measure? I wish I'd asked him.

Dinner at the Perce-Neige was once again outstanding and low-key, and since the sun doesn't set around here until around 10 PM, we had time after dinner for a reflective stroll around the quaint town of Vernou-sur-Brenne before turning in for the night.

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